Submarines: China Mapping Ocean Bottoms


February 5, 2024: As China’s merchant and submarine fleets increase, the government decided to protect their surface and underwater ships by mapping ocean bottoms of military interest. Special survey ships are used and the first area to be mapped is the Western Pacific, especially the South China Sea, which is relatively shallow and full of underwear obstacles that are close enough to the surface to be a danger to large ships. China is well aware of the experience Americans SSN crews have encountered with poorly prepared undersea charts and is seeking to avoid those problems with its new survey ships and their findings.

American SSNs (nuclear powered submarines) have already encountered such problems in the Pacific Ocean twice times in the past 20 years. The first such collision occurred in 2006 and the reason was a lack of updated charts, the nautical maps showing underwater obstacles on all SSNs. The SSN San Francisco hit the top of an underwater mountain at a depth of over 500 feet and speed over 50 kilometers an hour, smashing the sonar equipment that fills the bow (front) of the sub as the boat careened off to one side. The sub's sudden change of speed and direction was unexpected by the crew. 90 percent of the 138-man crew were injured and one later died. Most of the injuries were minor, but a third of the crew had serious problems like broken bones, dislocated shoulders, concussions, and cuts. Fortunately, the two sailors with medical training were not injured, and were able to prevent all but one of the injuries, a bad concussion, from getting worse. The navy used its study of the San Francisco medical situation to make changes in how subs are equipped, and sailors trained, to deal with large scale injuries. The navy also noted that 15 percent of the crew still had psychological problems months after the accident. This is not unusual for sailors involved in a large-scale accident.

But there were other reasons for poor morale among the San Francisco sailors. The sea mount the sub hit had been spotted by survey satellites in 1999 and 2004, but the intelligence agency responsible, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, said it didn't have the money to update naval charts. Neither did the navy, or anyone else. Because of this American submarines were allowed to continue moving around amidst all manner of uncharted hazards. Despite this problem, the sailors on duty when the San Francisco hit the seamount were punished for not having taken more frequent depth soundings, which would have indicated they might be approaching an obstacle, or consulting another map than the one originally used that showed a possible seamount five kilometers from where they actually collided with one.

The navy held the crew responsible for the collision. Six members of the crew were given non-judicial, no court martial, punishment for their actions, or inactions, that caused the accident. The six sailors punished included officers, senior Petty Officers (NCOs) and lower ranking sailors. Punishment ranged from letters of reprimand to reduction in rank. The charges were hazarding a vessel and dereliction of duty. The investigators concluded that these six crewmen could have detected the approaching sea mount and taken evasive action if they had followed proper procedures. The captain of the sub was relieved earlier of command.

At the same time, the navy also gave awards, for helping save the submarine after the collision, to eighteen NCOs and two officers. These included two Meritorious Service Medals, nine Commendation Medals, four Achievement Medals and five Letters Of Commendation.

The lack of courts martial indicates that the navy didn't feel it had strong enough evidence for that approach, which is more like a jury trial, and demands more compelling evidence. The non-judicial punishment hurts, but does not destroy, the career of a submariner. This is because the navy has a hard time recruiting qualified people for this kind of work. The navy could have held one or more courts martial, but apparently were convinced that just using the non-judicial punishment would get the matter behind them with a minimum of fuss and penalty. The charges in the non-judicial hearings were of the you should have seen this coming and been a more cautious variety. Anyone who knows anything about nuclear submarines, and their crews, knows that these are the most cautious and deliberate sailors in the fleet. Eventually, more details of these proceedings, and the collision itself, came out and confirmed the facts of the case.

The real reason for the San Francisco incident was the Navy’s failure to update its charts showing potential underwater hazards to submarines. That was thought to have been remedied after the 2005 incident and all ships were supposed to have the electronic charts that are part of the new VMS Voyage Management System that not only uses electronic copies of charts, but quickly updates charts when new underwater obstacles are detected. This is done via space satellites or various seagoing data collection systems. In 2016 the navy installed a new VMS system version 9.3 in American SSNs. Crews are given initial training on these new systems before they depart on a cruise, where the two senior officers, and especially the COB, are responsible for ensuring that all sailors involved with navigation are properly trained to handle the VMS and the new charts.

The second American SSN underwater seamount collision occurred in October 2021 to the very advanced and expensive Seawolf class SSN Connecticut. The damage was so severe that the sub had to surface immediately, and some ballast tanks were damaged so the sub could not remain underwater. It was also feared that there might have been a radiation leak but none of the radiation monitoring sensors on the sub detected any. The navy relieved the captain of the Connecticut along with the second in command executive officer, and the COB, or Chief of the Boat, the senior NCO on the sub. These key personnel were relieved for poor navigation procedures and failure to train the crew to do it right. Now the submarine command wants to find out the extent of the problem by similarly scrutinizing the status of navigation training and capabilities on all SSNs.

The navy also realized that its training of such key submarine officers might have been at fault. Soon the commander of all American subs and the commander of subs based in the Pacific agreed that an emergency halt in regular operations to assess the state of navigation training among SSN crews. The subsequent investigation found that one major problem was poor training and supervision of the officers and sailors who handle underwater navigation.




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